Last summer, after watching Joey Chestnut eat a world-record 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes on ESPN, I developed an obsession with competitive eating, which combines two of my greatest loves: eating food and watching sports. But it also raised questions: What possesses someone to become a competitive eater, to stuff his or her face with obscene amounts of food, risking vomiting (or experiencing, as it's called in the circuit, "a reversal") in public? And does this really qualify as a sport?
Two weeks later, my fascination brought me to the Chinook Winds Resort in Lincoln City, Oregon, to watch Chestnut eat 7.65 pounds of barbecue pork ribs in 12 minutes. I got a chance to interview Chestnut, a sweet, soft-spoken civil-engineering major at San Jose State who works construction, and promptly fell a little bit in love with him. I have never met someone so genuinely in love with food and so aware of the workings of his own body. Chestnut's career as the number-one-ranked competitive eater (as determined by the International Federation of Competitive Eating) is marked by determination and being in tune with his body, but, most of all, by a deep affection for food. "I can tell you love food, Angela," Chestnut said as I swooned. "Say you love chicken Parmesan—you want to eat a whole plate of it. The difference between you and me is that I want to eat 10 pounds of it."
The 93rd Annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest airs Fri July 4 at 9 am on ESPN.